Essays (book reviews)

The Time is Ripe:

Rosalind Galt’s
Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image

Columbia University Press, 2011, 408 pages)


Cinephiles love austerity, everything that is (as the French say) dure et pure. Clean lines, asceticism, rigorous minimalism, dedicated simplification. There is a word for it: exigency, the one way – the only way – to stage, frame, shoot, edit and score something.


And it’s a matter of austerity in form as well as content: going along with the precision and purity of the stylistic decisions, we revel in the “workers and peasants” of Jean-Marie Straub and Dani√®le Huillet, the displaced wanderers of Lisandro Alonso, the precarious sub-proletariat of Béla Tarr or Pedro Costa or the Dardenne brothers …


It makes us feel good, somehow: it is not quite a matter of observing the “wretched of the earth” from some safe, comfortable distance, but rather a kind of ethical purging for the spectator, a confrontation with “bare life” and the things that really, finally matter …


There is a reverse, negative side to this love. Something else must be projected beyond the walls of our purified culture-fortress, excluded, demonised. Something to be hated! And what cinephiles tend to despise is a certain regime of fantasy in cinema.


Oh, of course, there is some fantasy – usually of long-ago movies – that can be easily tolerated, even indulged: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the stairway to heaven, Vincente Minnelli in Brigadoon, Fritz Lang’s swashbuckling pirates in Moonfleet (1955). But that is different. It’s not soft, sentimental, fuzzy … It is, after all, exigent, necessary, dark, profound fantasy, a play of metaphors, a matter of life and death!


What cinephiles hate – with a passion – is prettiness. Useless clutter. Kitschy baroque of a type that cannot be intellectually or philosophically redeemed. Flabby, excessively emotional, embarrassing, shameful. Soft-focus lenses and treacly, symphonic music with some single piano notes tinkling in the foreground. Like some dreadful Nick Cassavetes rendition of a bestseller-romance novel (The Notebook, what a discredit to his father!). Films with stuff piling up everywhere – no control, no restraint, no purity. Certain once-promising directors have been lost to the Land of the Pretty: Wayne Wang, for instance, from The Joy Luck Club (1993) to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011): a hopeless cause!


But every few years, a book comes along that radically redefines our sense of cinema, how it can be viewed and explored. In the course of the 2000s so far, these books have included Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost and Mikhail Iampolski’s The Memory of Tiresias. The time is ripe for Rosalind Galt’s Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (Columbia University Press, 2011). It is a book with a razor-sharp brilliance which, from its first page, cuts a path through sedimented, cinephilic prejudices and biases.


Pretty hones in on the bad reasons – fear of emotion, of the feminine, of the powerfully visual, of the sexually queer – that we so often opt for purity over excess, rigour over feeling, clean lines over a baroque profusion of shapes and colours.


Pretty is surprising – and refreshingly confronting – at every turn of the page. It invites us to ponder, and embrace, an unusual, unfamiliar canon of the gloriously pretty in cinema, ranging from Baz Luhrmann and Wong Kar-wai to Derek Jarman and Glauber Rocha. Entire national or international film cultures (such as the Latin American or Third World examples), whole cultures or subcultures (such as camp extravagance) are redeemed, as Galt valiantly knocks down a century or so of iconophobic resistances to visual and auditory pleasure in cinema.


It is also a deeply political book. Personal, communal and national identities are formed in and around what is pretty, what is nice, what is pleasant. Some popular music aficionados have long accepted this fact of cultural history; film aesthetes have held out longer against what they perceive of as the demons of kitsch, cliché, the “poster image” (Serge Daney’s great anti-pretty lament) and merely “beautiful cinematography”, whether in Luc Besson or Bernardo Bertolucci.


There is too much beauty, of a non-puristic kind, that we have too deeply repressed. Let it out, cinephiles! – and embrace all that is pretty.


© Adrian Martin November 2011

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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